Sometimes called “social deduction games,” hidden role games are games where you are assigned a secret identity that determines your victory conditions. The classic example is Werewolf (sometimes called “Mafia” or any number of other variants), but the genre has expanded to include a diverse set of games.
The classic Werewolf / Mafia game, without special roles beyond good guy / bad guy, has been mathematically solved – essentially, the ideal strategy is to ignore the social element and assign everyone a random number. Eliminate the players in that order and, provided you stuck to your guns, you have a better than 50% chance of the villagers / citizens winning. The bad guy counter-strategy is to start killing from the back, which means that the random choice must be closer to correct for it to work. Truly diabolical players might skip a citizen, which implies that the individual is the mafia which, if true, guarantees a mafia victory, shaking confidence in the method.
One way to directly address* this “weakness” in classic social deduction games is to disallow any method of producing random numbers. With no random numbers, you have to rely on the person who assigns numbers being a citizen, which adds an extra point of failure, reducing the winning percentage significantly. I leave, as an exercise to the reader, the actual math behind this (which changes based on the volume of players in the game, of course, and the density of the bad guys).
Most hidden role games, however, now include rules far more complex than simply assigning the players to a good team and a bad team. Ultimate Werewolf has over 50 roles plus an expansion featuring artifacts, which makes reducing the game to math exponentially more complicated. Including too many roles can, of course, overwhelm a moderator, especially if they are new to such games, or unfamiliar with many of the roles. For experienced groups, however, the sort of chaos it creates can be very exciting indeed.
Some hidden role games manage to make a complex game from a simple concept. Two Rooms and a Boom (available as a free print and play) is potentially quite involved even if playing with the vanilla rules and no special roles (beyond President and Bomber, of course). It is, however, better suited to larger groups (although it’s playable with as few as 6). It is also very vulnerable to cheating (but your group would never do that, right?).
Secret Hitler is significantly more involved (also available as a free print and play!) but prone to be a very satisfying play. It has random elements beyond the initial setup, which adds an additional layer of strategy and uncertainty.
Batman: The Animated Series themed game Almost Got ‘Im is unique insomuch as there is a game within a game. Modeled after the namesake episode of the brilliant 1990’s series, the game features not only hidden roles, but also overt roles and a poker game that determines when you may take your secret actions. While the role abilities are, admittedly, of varying utility, the game is a blast and will fill any 90’s kid with nostalgia for one of the great animated series of the era.
Every group that plays hidden role games regularly will begin to see meta-strategies emerge that are unique to their group. In games of Avalon with our group, there is a general agreement among villains that if two are on the same mission, the Assassin player is the one who decides if the mission fails or not (and if the Assassin isn’t on the mission, they almost invariably pass the mission successfully). The interesting thing about meta-strategies is that once you identify them and say them out loud, they tend to change in response, just as saying a player’s tells out loud tends to help them address them.
Hidden role games can be a great way to involve a large group of players, since many games have a limit of 4-6 players, whereas many hidden role games can accommodate substantially greater numbers of players (Two Rooms and a Boom goes up to 30!), or can make a great change of pace from games of skill or chance. As a genre, hidden role games have really come into their own over the past couple years, and any game library is well served in having a few on the shelf.
* Apart from invoking Wheaton’s Law, because reducing a hidden role game to a mathematical exercise is unambiguously “being a dick.” Not that we here at Save Vs. Rant don’t love math, and we’ll rant about that another day.